I’m listening to Shakti, the much-lauded David S. Ware CD that officially got released this week, and I’m struck by the change in his style over the years. Shakti‘s quartet playing is still edgy but has such a warm, cushiony feel.
But wait — is this just me? I mean, I’ve recently sampled Dao and Cryptology, CDs from about 15 years ago: aggressive playing with pointy corners. Shakti is certainly different from that. But is it all that different from Ware’s work of five or even 10 years ago, when he got that brief contract with Columbia? Am I just being fooled because Matthew Shipp‘s marble-hall piano chords are replaced by Joe Morris‘ jazz guitar?
Time for a taste test. I go to Ware’s Live in the World and drop a 2003 disc into the CD player. I hit shuffle.
(OK, shuffle is bad: It picks “Lexicon,” three minutes of scorched-earth blasting. That’s the encore track, so it doesn’t count. Next.)
Here we go: “Sentient Compassion” does have a feel that a 2003 listener might call “mellow” compared with Ware’s early work. It’s got rippling deep-water piano, heavy on the sustain pedal, but the sax part has a declarative, regal feel — from around 1998 to 2006, Shipp and Ware had this Tyner/Coltrane air going. The bowed bass solo is furious, but not a hard blare, and backed only by slow and subtle piano. Sax comes back, soloing over slow, easy-to-follow chords, with a heavy importance.
Back to Shakti, then. “Crossing Samsara” gets into some twisty, throttling sax right away, but it’s not that regal feel; it’s earthier. The composed theme is more serene, without overdosing on the peace-and-love thing. Ware’s solo, though — it’s sounding different, but is that the solo itself, or the effect of Morris’ guitar?
“Reflection” might be a better comparison. Casual, swingy — actually, there’s a clear difference in temprament from the 2003 session, right from the first notes. Ware’s solo flows and weaves nicely, keeping up a dogged tenacity without shattering the relaxed mood of the piece. (Catchy themes aren’t anything new for Ware, though; 1998’s “Mikuro’s Blues” was a nifty number in 10/4 time.)
Something’s definitely coming through, though. Even the relative intensity of the title track, “Shakti” — which ends with high-intensity, high-register sax squealing — shows a kind of restraint that’s new, at least in my Ware-listening experience. In fact, the one Shakti track where Ware flashes his old-school self, “Antidromic,” turns out to be reprised from his first AUM Fidelity album, Wisdom of Uncertainty. And even then, “Antidromic” is presented with tact, keeping consistent with the rest of the album.
So, where’s the difference in Shakti? Part of it is the surroundings, guitar vs. piano. But I think Ware has matured in his attack, too, making it less complex in raw volume of notes (and in raw volume) but producing a more sophisticated package in the process. It’s softer, but that’s an oversimplification.
So, my amateur ears split Ware’s career into three phases. (And keep in mind, I’m ignorant of anything he did before 1994. He could have been doing Smiths covers before that, for all I know.) There’s the mid-’90s angry aggression; the grand, Coltrane-infused sound of the years around 2000; and now, possibly, a new phase drawn even more from spiritual roots, but in a more accepting way. It’s a confident wisdom instead of a furious quest. And while I still enjoy the bluster of those earlier albums, it’s great to hear Ware trying out new contexts for his work. Oh, and by the way, Shakti does sound great.